Dangerous days 

The Legislature's about to go from bad to worse

The 2011 Montana Legislature is moving into its final weeks. If you thought there were already enough bad ideas, arrogant attacks on citizen-passed initiatives and idiotic quotes that make our state a national laughingstock, wait till you see what's coming. Now's the time when things get downright crazy as desperate legislators try to rewrite bills in conference committees, the budget gets thrown around among the House, Senate and governor's office, and the rhetoric about working for the citizens gives way to blatant kowtowing to the awesome power of corporate lobbyists.

Think back to 1997 when, in the very last weeks of the session, a monster bill, hundreds of pages long and calling for the deregulation of Montana's utility industry, suddenly appeared. Anyone who truly cared about Montana and its citizens would naturally say such a measure, with enormous potential consequences, should have been introduced early in the session to allow in-depth analysis not only by those who would vote on it, but by the affected citizenry.

But that didn't happen. Instead, the sheer power of the former Montana Power Company's cadre of lobbyists combined with a more-than-willing Gov. Marc Racicot rolled out the bill to a Republican-dominated Legislature and stuffed it through the Senate and House in weeks instead of months.

The regrettable result, which we will be living with for some time to come, was the disintegration of Montana Power Company and the sale of its generation capacity—including the hydroelectric dams that had been paid for by Montana utility customers—to Pennsylvania Power and Light. Under the false promise that "competition" would bring lower rates, Montanans went from having the cheapest electrical rates in the northwest to the highest. In short, we got hosed coming and going.

Now, once again, a Republican-dominated legislature is poised to blast out ill-conceived laws with little debate and even less public review. And the unintended consequences, while perhaps not approaching the catastrophe of deregulation, will surely follow.

The ridiculous rewrite of the medical marijuana law approved by 62 percent of Montana's voters in 2004 is a classic example of late-session madness. Spurred by what we're told is their great concern for citizens, Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, and his clueless compatriots have turned the initiative into an unrecognizable system of hypocritical hurdles and unrealistic requirements. Apparently plucking a number from thin air, Essmann says 28,000 Montanans with medical marijuana cards is too high, and he thinks the right number is about 2,000. Did he provide the reasoning behind that number? No, he did not. Once again, we have Republican ideology trumping any semblance of logic or reason.

As for the hypocrisy, well, that's an easy one. Remember the Republican campaign slogans to "get government off your backs"? Essmann must have forgotten. Now he wants to put government in your doctor's office, demanding not only how often you see a doctor, but how many doctors you must see.

Or how about being "business friendly," a continuous Republican mantra along with "jobs, jobs, jobs." Essmann's rewrite will require existing Montana businesses that grow cannabis for medical use to suddenly become nonprofits and sell their product at cost, likely eliminating entire commercial operations and hundreds of jobs. In the meantime, the predatory pharmaceutical industry not only continues to rip off Montanans with sky-high prescription drug prices, they won't even tell citizens what the cost of production is—a figure protected by federal legislation as "trade secrets." But I guess Essmann's great concern for the health of Montanans only extends to saving them from reefer madness.

Then there are the classic "bait and switch" bills on coal. Remember when Secretary of State Linda McCulloch proclaimed over and over that leasing Otter Creek coal was "for the kids"? Well, the latest legislative offerings to King Coal will allow coal companies to evade the requirement that the state get "fair market value" for its minerals. Instead, under House Bill 533, sponsored by Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, a "competitive bid"–in which perhaps only one company participates–will set the new floor for the value of our coal instead of an appraisal. It's great news for Arch Coal, but just another bummer for "the kids."

Likewise, it's easy to recall the fanfare with which Gov. Schweitzer announced the opening of the Signal Peak coal mine near Roundup. We were told rivers of money would flow to local governments for schools, infrastructure and public services. Ha! Comes now Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Roundup, with Senate Bill 266 that would allow vast reductions for up to 10 years in local taxes for underground coal mines. And wouldn't you know it, Montana's only underground coal mine just happens to be Signal Peak—in Olsen's district. Sorry about that, local taxpayers, but you know, those out-of-state mine owners need the break more than you and your communities do.

Last, but certainly not least, there's the budget. Does anyone actually believe the citizens were well served by having the Senate debate the budget bill until almost midnight on Monday, only to pass it on a party-line vote? If you think a bunch of tired and burned-out legislators displayed compromised judgment, just watch what happens next. Now it goes back to the House and then to a conference committee where the differences will be "ironed out." If the rumors are true, the Legislature will send the bill to Schweitzer and adjourn—saving ten days to come back and deal with whatever Schweitzer does with his veto branding iron. A special session may well be the outcome.

At this point in the legislative game, citizens will have virtually no input in what happens. With March Madness behind us, that means April's Fools lie directly ahead.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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